To us Chinese, there are only two kinds of food: good Chinese food and bad Chinese food. When I was a kid, wherever our family went — Chicago, New York, DC — we always ate at Chinese restaurants. Only after I grew up and realized that I wanted to try local food – BBQ in Kansas City, she-crab bisque in Charleston, SC, or bison burgers in Utah – did it dawn on me that there was something very Chinese in our food chauvinism.
Food is central to the Chinese identity. On special occasions such as New Year’s and weddings, we Chinese don’t go to church. We don’t dance or sing. We don’t dress up in fancy clothes. We eat!!
When my mom came to St. Louis in 1955, there was no question that our family would eat Chinese. It never occurred to any of us to change our diets – to eat steak and potatoes or hamburger and fries or stew. Never. But the obstacles to continue eating Chinese were huge.
It’s hard to imagine now the food landscape in the Midwest in the 1950s. Soy sauce was exotic. No one had heard of tofu. Seafood consisted of fish sticks. Chow mein noodles were crispy and came in cans. My mom had to explain to Americans that wontons were Chinese ravioli.
Mom faced another challenge to her determination to cook Chinese food besides the lack of ingredients. She never had to cook before. There had always been servants, even during the three years we lived in Hong Kong as political refugees from Communist China. I have a faint memory of Shi Fa, my grandfather’s cook in Shanghai, apron over an undershirt and holding a ferocious cleaver.
Mom took some cooking lessons while in Hong Kong, preparing to take on this responsibility. But she could not have anticipated that so many things that she considered staples weren’t available in St. Louis: fresh bamboo shoots, ginger root, sesame oil, preserved mustard greens and preserved turnip greens, dried shrimp, dried Chinese mushroom and another dried fungus called wood ear, star anise, preserved duck eggs, thousand-year-old eggs and soy products including tofu, five-spice dried tofu, bean curd sticks and bean curd knots, dried and fresh soybeans (edamame.) Oh, yeah, and rice. To this day, I don’t know what Uncle Ben’s converted rice is.
At a store downtown called Asia Market, we shopped for rice, soy sauce, sesame oil, dried Chinese noodles and preserved vegetables in cans. Sometimes, fresh vegetables such as bean sprouts and bok choy were available. We also bought favorite Chinese snacks: hua mei, dried plums that taste sweet, salty and sour; salt-preserved cuttlefish and curry-flavored beef jerky. A special treat was taro, the potato-like vegetable that Hawaiians make into poi. Mom would bake the taro and we’d peel them and eat them straight, dipping each bite into sugar.
I remember how excited Mom was when the Joyce Chen Cook Book came out in 1962. By that time, Mom had seven years of on-the-job Chinese cooking training and had figured out a lot of work-arounds with American ingredients. (Also, her English had gotten good enough to read the book.) I think the Joyce Chen book made Mom feel less alone in America. Someone else understood her issues, such as how to make the most tender Cold Cut Chicken — poach the chicken; the best proportion of broth and water for a soup base — one can chicken broth, three cups water and ¾ tsp salt; and some recipes for Northern Chinese and Sichuan dishes that were not in her Shanghai cooking repertoire – Peking Duck, Mooshi Pork and Chungking Beef Shreds, for instance. And like with all cooks, she found it a pleasure to read recipes, even if she didn’t use them.
It was a curious thing. The longer we lived in America, the more American we became in most ways. We drove cars. We watched TV. We wore jeans. But not so with food. Mom spent her time, considerable energy and analytical mind to find better and better ways to approximate the tastes she knew in China.
My folks bought a meat grinder and made ground pork from pork shoulder to recreate everyday dishes that called for ground meat. They found something close to Chinese ham in Virginia ham. I remember it as a moldy, cloth-covered lump that they carved hard little pieces off of to flavor soup. Mom tried many different ways to cook cha xiu – the pieces of red barbeque pork one sees hanging in the windows of many Chinese restaurants today. It wasn’t enough for her that it tasted right. It had to be the exact shade of red.
Oh, my parents were creative in getting foodstuff not available in stores. Dad knew a guy who owned a farm in Mulberry Grove, Illinois. Dad asked him if he would grow soybeans for us. Toward summer’s end, our family all piled into the car, drove the one and a half hours to Mulberry Grove and harvested the soybeans. We’d strip each bush until we had a dozen or so shopping bags full. Flush with our treasure, we’d cook them in the pod in salt water and eat them for snacks. We’d shuck the rest and freeze them for later use.
All our family vacations were to the Lake of the Ozarks in south central Missouri. This kept our family in fish for the year. We caught mostly crappie. The limit was twenty crappies a day. We’d often catch our limit — eighty for the four of us. We established an assembly line for cleaning the fish, and then Mom wrapped them in foil and put them in the freezer. When we ran out of room in the freezer of the fishing cabin, we carried our silver packages to the cabin owner’s freezer. On each trip, and we’d do three of them a year, we’d return to St. Louis with one or two full-sized coolers of fish. At home, the fish were stored in our basement freezer. Being Catholic, on Fridays, Mom would steam the fish in soy sauce with green onion and ginger or sizzle-fry the small ones after marinating them in soy sauce and wine.
Mom’s attempts to make tofu at home turned out to be a year-long chemistry experiment. You had to make soymilk by adding water to ground up beans. I don’t recall how my mom did the grinding – blender or by hand? Next, she’d cook up the soymilk. She determined that she needed gypsum to thicken the milk. Mom begged and bugged Chinese friends who worked at Monsanto Chemical Company to get gypsum for her. Then she squeezed the thickened liquid through cheesecloth. After that, she put the semi-solid product into wooden molds that Dad had built. To further squeeze liquid out, Mom put her cutting board on top of the tofu in the molds and then stacked volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica on top of her cutting board. She went through many pounds of soybeans before she got it right. There was a Goldilocks vibe to the process: too runny, too tough, too stringy, too sour, not white enough.
Mom became a great cook and was known for her cooking not just among the small St. Louis Chinese community but also among our American and Filipino friends. She taught me a trick or two, too. Every time I snap off the stem of an asparagus stalk, I think of her. I check the doneness of pasta by picking up a strand from the pot with my chopsticks. If it breaks when I squeeze the two sticks tight, it’s ready.
I have favorite recipes from the Joyce Chen Cook Book that I make regularly. Cauliflower – stir fry florets in oil with salt, then add water and cook on low until soft – is my go-to dish when I want to eat something filling but not caloric. I cook Meatballs and Bean Thread Soup when I want comfort food. And for a fast and tasty meal, I choose Peking Meat Sauce Noodles.
Mom took up cooking out of necessity, not for love or glory. But, once she started, she went all out because Chinese people really, really like Chinese food. She was truly thrilled when in 1972, nearly two decades after she arrived in America, a non-chop-suey, Shanghai style – Northern Chinese restaurant, the Lantern House, opened on Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis.
Tell me: Do you have a favorite cookbook?